Czech art at the turn of the 20th century was dominated by the generation of the 1890s, who rebelled against academic rigidity and embraced modern international movements such as Impressionism and Symbolism. These artists initially formed around the Manes Union Of Fine Arts, founded in Prague in 1887. The leading figures included Mikoláš Aleš, who was involved in the decoration of the National Theater; the symbolist sculptor Franišek Bílek; Jan Preisler; and Max Švabinský, who founded a school of graphic arts and designed windows for St. Vitus’s Cathedral in Prague. Czech Symbolism developed further in the work of the Sursum society, whose creative principle was ‘dream work’.
Today, however, fin-de-siècle Prague is indelibly associated with Alfons Mucha (1860-1939). Mucha defines the Art Nouveau style, and gained an international reputation very quickly after moving to Paris in 1887. Here he produced the celebrated posters for Sarah Bernhardt and her Renaissance theater. The ‘Mucha Style’ not only encompassed posters, paintings and illustrations but also designs for jewelry, textiles and theater sets, gaining an even wider fame at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. However, Mucha was frustrated by his association with commercial art and wanted to draw attention to both his Czech roots and the spiritual essence to his work. Thus it was the ‘Slav Epic’, a series of 20 huge paintings depicting the history of the Slavic people, which he considered his masterpiece and thus bequeathed to the city of Prague in 1928.
Bohumil Kubišta (1884-1918) is celebrated as one of the founders of Czech modern painting. Along with Emil Filla, Antonín Procházka and five others, he founded Osma (The Eight) in 1907 – an Expressionist-oriented group of artists – and continued to work in this style until 1910, exchanging ideas with German painters in Die Brücke. Around 1911, the influence of Cubism can be seen in his work. However the Expressionist elements in his use of color and his subject matter make Kubišta’s Cubism distinct from that of Parisian Cubists. He paid close attention to color theory and optics, and to mathematical and geometric principles, which he applied to his elaborate compositions.
The Czech Modernist perhaps best known outside the Czech Republic is František Kupka (1871-1957). During his early career in Paris, Kupka illustrated books and posters, influenced by Mucha, and became known for his satirical drawings. Influenced by the first Futurist Manifesto in 1909, Kupka’s work became increasingly abstract, reflecting his theories of motion; the relationship between music and painting; and freeing colors from descriptive associations. Around 1910 Kupka began developing his own color wheels, leading to a series of paintings he called ‘Discs of Newton’ (1911–12). This style became known as Orphism — although Robert Delaunay is now more readily associated with this style, the critic Apollinaire first used the term in 1912 in reference to Kupka’s work exhibited in the Cubist room at the Salon des Indépendants. Later, in 1931, Kupka was a founding member of Abstraction-Création, and in 1936 his work was included in the exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Czech surrealism enjoyed a brief flowering in the 1930s, before occupying forces, followed by the communists, persecuted adherents of the movement. The most notable Czech Surrealists were Jindřich Štyrský (1899-1942) and Toyen (1902-1980). Štyrský pioneered the use of color collage and used dreams as a key inspiration for his art, along with eroticism and black humor, while Toyen used Surrealist techniques to great effect to express the senselessness and absurdity of war.
The wartime situation led to a general existential distress; artists attempted to address this malaise through a greater emphasis on humanist subjects. Several important groups emerged, such as Skupina 42 (Group 42), which aimed to depict the individual within a modern, mechanized civilization that threatened to subsume him. The Ra Group maintained a link to surrealism, creating visions of destruction, while the Sedm v rijnu (Seven in October group) introduced the ‘aesthetic of the naked person.’
In the early 1960s, concepts of neo-constructivism and geometric abstraction filtered into the Czech artistic consciousness from Western Europe. Stanislav Kolibal (b.1925) was a leading figure in the group ‘UB 12’, which played an important role in Czech art during this period. Influenced by minimalism, conceptualism, process thinking and Arte Povera, he uses formal elements to question the relationship between illusion and reality. His work is a meditation on the basic questions of human existence and the meaning of life; the reduced abstract forms utilized are suggestive of growth, metamorphosis and extinction. Isolated in his studio following the Soviet crackdown in the 1970s, Kolibal conceived the concept of the ‘installation.’ Living in West Berlin in 1988-9, he produced his ‘Berlin Drawings’ which used a basic geometric language of lines, circles and intersections to create order and harmony. Recent work has centered on relief series that address the issue of layering, playing on forms and matte surfaces.
It was in the 1960s that Karel Malich (b.1924) first created the wire sculptures that became his unique medium, and which have been likened to cosmic lines of force. Among his most celebrated wire sculptures are Human-Cosmic Coitus (1984-8) and Landscape with Eternity (1979-85), perceived by some critics as one of the most significant sculptures of 20th century Czech art. Pastels, which he combines with tempera, have also become a characteristic medium.
In a similar trajectory, Radek Kratina (1928-1999), originally a textile designer, began to experiment in the 60s with 3D work – initially small-scale plaster sculptures and structural reliefs. This led to what are now considered his most important works: sculptures based on variation and transformation. The series of ‘Variables’, made of wood, plexiglass or metal, can be shifted or rotated in seemingly infinite directions. Of these playful sculptures Kratina wrote: ‘manual contact transforms the spectator into a participant, a co-creator, and fulfils the viewer’s need for artistic self-realisation.’ Kratina was a co-founder of the Club of Concretists (Klub konkretistů) in 1967, but after a few shows he was banned from exhibiting and publishing his work due to the Soviet invasion and crackdown on culture in 1968.
The work of Hugo Demartini (1931-2010) developed from traditional figural sculptures to geometric abstraction in the late 1950s, with structural reliefs influenced by Art Informel. In the 1960s his style became more influenced by Constructivism and in 1968 he exhibited with the Club of Concretists. During this decade he created his now characteristic ball-shaped objects made of chrome-plated metal, a reflective material that involves the spectator in the artwork. This interest in reflection and the technically ideal object was used in land art, producing radical ‘accidental compositions’ which verged on Action Art. He later returned to more traditional materials, creating plaster models of deserted places and cubic ‘destroyed objects.’
In recent times David Černý (b.1967) has courted controversy with sculptural installations such as Tower Babies; mutant infants who appear to be crawling up the Žižkov Television Tower in Prague. Shark, a parody of Damian Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living (2005), depicted Saddam Hussein in a tank of formaldehyde. This work was banned twice, first in Belgium then in Poland, while Entropa (2009) – commissioned to commemorate the Czech presidency of the EU – hit the international news with its stereotyped depictions of EU member states.
The trajectory of Czech art over the course of the 20th Century and into the present day has mirrored its turbulent history. The fin-de-siècle saw Prague as a major city within the powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire, keen to promote the arts to its greater glory and show its artists free to travel across Europe. After years of persecution and restricted access to the outside world, Czech art is once again making an impact on an international stage, this time as a sovereign nation. Those who fought against the communist system are finally gaining the recognition they deserve.